Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on sexual education in schools.
The subject is taboo. It makes many people uncomfortable and leads to many awkward conversations.
Yet the time to talk about health education, and sex education in particular, is now.
The Comprehensive Health Education Act, which was passed in 1988, was formed to standardize health education and sex education in public schools.
The law was meant to clarify a number of things, including how much time each student was required to receive lessons on reproductive health. It also stated what information was appropriate to teach at each grade level, with grades K-5 including nutritional health, grades 6-8 including STD prevention and grades 9-12 including pregnancy prevention.
It offered an emphasis on adoption, abstinence and the risks of unmarried sex. It also clarified who has the authority to approve instructional materials and that school boards may offer professional development to CHEA teachers.
Now, 25 years later, The New Morning Foundation, a South Carolina reproductive health advocacy organization, recently commissioned a report called “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act.”
The report found that 75 percent of S.C. school districts are noncompliant with the CHEA.
Aiken County is one of 22 districts in the state that is compliant and without a single violation.
“We simply follow the legislation,” Dr. Tim Yarborough, the high school academic officer for Aiken County, said. “We comply with all of the requirements.”
According to Tell Them, a grassroots e-advocacy network, the act has failed statewide due to significant weaknesses. Weaknesses include no objective evaluation processes, no way to verify that students are learning that condoms are a way to prevent pregnancy and STDs or that teachers are spending enough time explaining the basics of reproductive health, the group said.
Tell Them also states there is no way to verify that sex education lessons are based on medically-accurate facts and evidence-based materials or if personal opinions, religious beliefs and other non-scientific perspectives have made their way into the classroom.
The biggest challenge, Yarborough said, is simply allocating time for students. The graduation requirements from the S.C. Department of Education state that a student must have 840 hours of electives, 480 hours of English/language arts and mathematics, 360 hours of science and so forth. The requirement for reproductive health education is 12.5 hours, which may seem small by comparison, but still requires foresight and planning.
“It's about finding the time for classroom instruction,” Yarborough said. “The state Department of Education provides all of the resources and they're readily available. It's just the time that is the primary challenge.”
Even with such a sliver of required time, many school districts fail to get the allocated requirement. Yarborough also conceded that funding doesn't allow for the district to do much beyond the required levels.
“What we found in our report is that a lot of school districts don't understand what is required of them from the Comprehensive Health Education Act,” Emma Davidson, manager for strategic mobilization at Tell Them S.C., said. “It is a very vague law, it was passed with the best of intentions, and if all of the components were really implemented and coordinated properly we could do amazing things. ... Because the law requires very little accountability, we're in the state we're in. Some districts are using this act and flying with it, much like Aiken County, who should be commended for its compliance with the act.”
The “state” that Davidson refers to comes with a number of eye-opening statistics. From 1991-2008, S.C. teen births have cost the state $4.1 billion.
On average, there are 68 cases of chlamydia or gonorrhea reported among S.C. adolescents every day. The report also found that 19 percent of S.C. middle school students have had sexual intercourse, while more than 50 percent of high school students have
Condom use has dropped among sexually-active teens from 67 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2011. The state also ranks among the top 10 in the country for the highest case rates of AIDS, chlamydia and gonorrhea, and ranks 12th in teen births nationally.
To download the full report of “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act,” visit http://bit.ly/11zufkQ.
Adolescent health crisis
Aiken County has an adolescent health crisis risk of “high” due to the following statistics being above the state and national averages.
Teen birth rate (ages 15-19)
(Percentage per 1,000 births)
• Aiken County, 4 percent
• South Carolina, 4 percent
• United States, 3 percent
Children living in poverty
(2009 Census data)
• Aiken County, 26 percent
• South Carolina, 24 percent
• United States, 22 percent
High school dropout rate
(2010-11 school year)
• Aiken County, 24 percent
• South Carolina, 16 percent
• United States 7, percent